Fashion Hockey

How legendary coach Neal Henderson serves the youth through hockey — The Undefeated

How legendary coach Neal Henderson serves the youth through hockey — The Undefeated

WASHINGTON — On an unseasonably 90-degree night in early October in Southeast Washington, the Fort Dupont Ice Area seems like a meat locker, so chilly that your physique is shocked by the sudden drop in temperature. Inside what was as soon as the lone indoor ice rink within the district sit about 30 youths on raised bleachers placing on gear.

When 7 o’clock hits, every of the skaters takes to the ice for 10 minutes of warm-ups. All of them lap across the rink, with some leaping up and down on one skate. All, on a coach’s whistle, then change instructions, skate backward or instantly drop to the ice.

Whereas the 4 adults on the ice should typically repeat directions, the girls and boys between the ages of eight and 19 are attentive and silent. There’s no horseplay or goofing off. And there’s a cause.

On the bench proper off the ice sits their 82-year-old head coach, Neal Henderson. All the time watching, all the time paying consideration.

Henderson is the co-founder of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Membership, higher generally known as the Cannons, a Washington-based youth hockey program that could be the oldest minority hockey program in North America. The Cannons, of their fourth decade, are devoted to offering youngsters within the district with the chance to each study the sport of hockey and achieve life expertise. For his work influencing the lives of greater than 1,500 youngsters through the years, Henderson has been awarded the NHL/Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Management Award, the USA Hockey William Thayer Tutt Award and numerous different honors. On Dec. 12, together with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and three others, Henderson might be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Corridor of Fame at a ceremony to be held in Washington. (The U.S. Hockey Corridor of Fame is in Minnesota.)

“It’s overwhelming to assume that you simply’ll be remembered for one thing that you simply’re pleased with, and that you simply’ve participated in, and that you simply’ve had youngsters and fogeys to be elated at the truth that they’ve had somebody that they belief to show and practice their youngsters to play a sport that’s harmful and had the complete confidence that the kid can be protected,” Henderson informed The Undefeated in downtown Washington.

Henderson had been recognized in his neighborhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for educating youngsters find out how to skate. His son, Neal Henderson II, and his pals would follow hockey within the household’s driveway. So in 1976, after being prodded by his son to start out a hockey workforce, Henderson created the Cannons together with highschool classmate and present workforce supervisor Betty Dean.

Henderson, who performed semiprofessional hockey in his youthful years in Utah and Washington, wouldn’t solely have the chance to show group constructing and duty, however he argues that hockey is exclusive in that it requires spatial and emotional intelligence.

Gamers from the bench of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey staff in Washington in 2014.

Linda Davidson/The Washington Publish by way of Getty Pictures

“[Hockey] teaches you to be offensive in addition to defensive on the similar time,” he stated. “It additionally teaches you the right way to reposition your self and to compensate for the weak spot of both your opponents or your self. It teaches you the best way to assume and find out how to stability out your emotions in the identical time of movement.”

The mission of the Cannons isn’t essentially about diversifying the game of hockey however slightly utilizing hockey as a channel to organize youngsters for the subsequent levels of their lives. Again within the Cannons’ infancy, Henderson would spend, on common, two hours every week on teaching and one other 13 hours tutoring and serving to his gamers with their schoolwork. He says he spends much more time with the Cannons now.

The staff practices two to 4 occasions every week relying on availability at Fort Dupont Ice Area (the world and hockey membership will not be affiliated). Henderson usually prepares for practices the night time earlier than, fixing and changing any defective gear. On follow days, he arrives on the rink early to examine the standard of the ice and manage the locker room.

The Cannons used to play upward of 14 video games a season in this system’s early days. However in recent times, the variety of video games has dwindled to as few as eight. Henderson’s mum on specifics, however he says groups have provide you with myriad last-minute causes — participant illness, climate, scheduling mishaps — to cancel scheduled video games.

“You run into all types of excuses,” he stated. “However I inform the youngsters, ‘Follow is what made you good, not video games.’ However some individuals get carried away: ‘You gotta have a recreation.’ My query is, what do you study in a recreation. And the one two belongings you study in a recreation: For those who win, you eat pizza and the sport is over. When you lose, you keep in mind you misplaced and eat pizza, however it don’t style nearly as good.”


When Henderson isn’t holding practices or teaching video games, he’s working to maintain the figurative lights on for the group, which had an annual finances of $50,000 in 2017 and doesn’t cost the youngsters a charge for participation. The Cannons are principally sponsored by donations and inner and exterior fundraising. The Washington Capitals, who practiced on the Fort Dupont Ice Area till 1979, have donated no less than $200,000 to the Cannons since 2003, in response to The Washington Publish. The Cannons are a featured charity of the Congressional Hockey Problem, an annual ice hockey recreation between federal lawmakers. The NHL and USA Hockey, the governing physique for ice hockey in the USA, donate used gear and foyer for funding on behalf of the staff.

In early 2018, after Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly was topic to racist taunts from 4 Chicago Blackhawks followers, the Cannons acquired $23,000 in donations from different Chicago followers by way of an internet fundraiser. Henderson stated he has additionally used his personal cash to maintain the group afloat. “I consider when individuals see you serving to your self, they don’t thoughts serving to you as a result of they see that you simply’re working for a objective as an alternative of ready for someone to work with you,” he stated.

Henderson teaches his group, a roster that ranges from 40 to 60 gamers relying on the time of yr, that they need to work onerous for what they need in life. Yearly in mid-October, the gamers promote fruit and pizza to assist increase funds. It’s a lesson in self-sustainability and monetary duty. “It’s higher that you simply discover ways to survive than to have any person to hand-feed you since you by no means know when that line isn’t going to provide anymore,” Henderson stated.

As a lot because the Cannons are about giving underserved youngsters an outlet to play sports activities and train them life classes alongside the best way, Henderson additionally emphasizes schooling. Gamers should keep a C common to play and even follow. These whose grades slip are nonetheless required to attend practices however are relegated to a small room above the rink within the southeast nook of the world, the place they’re required to put on all of their gear whereas they research. Henderson touts his program’s 95% commencement price, in contrast with 68% in district excessive faculties, as proof that his technique works.

However at first, he needs the gamers to study to respect themselves and their mother and father. For a few of them, Henderson is the lone father determine. “I say, ‘I’m your dad, I’m your uncle, I’m your greatest good friend, I’m your buddy, I’m something you need me to be. Simply don’t make me mad,’ ” stated Henderson, who has been described by these round him as stern but loving.

Whereas he raises his voice at apply for the gamers to maintain their sticks down or to bend their knees, he hugs almost each younger participant who rolls by and makes it some extent to not play favorites. The Cannons don’t use the phrase “greatest” as a result of everyone seems to be seen as gifted in their very own method.

“He’s a very beneficiant individual, and he likes to assist so much,” stated 9-year-old Javier Love, whose father additionally as soon as performed for the Cannons.

Assistant coach Robert Primus, 49, stated Henderson is an inspiration to the gamers as a result of he’s offered them alternatives not usually afforded to individuals who seem like them. “To know Coach Henderson is to like Coach Henderson,” he stated.

From left to proper: Fort Dupont hockey coaches Hank Lee, John Connor, Neal Henderson, Robert Primus and Ralph Featherstone take part in a ceremonial puck drop earlier than a recreation between the Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals at Capital One Area in Washington on Feb. 24, 2018.

Patrick McDermott/NHLI by way of Getty Photographs

Bernadette Belcher, 14, one among simply two women on the group, referred to as Henderson a “true chief” who believes in and encourages you regardless of the place you come from.

“Once I first got here right here, the primary apply, he stated how off ice I’m a woman however on ice I’m simply another hockey participant,” she stated. “He sees a top quality regardless of your age, gender, talent degree. He’ll train you with the identical respect and encouragement.”

Henderson needed to study respect in hockey the onerous means.

Within the 1960s, whereas teaching youth hockey in Utah, Henderson was approached by two white brothers who stated they have been “going to do some hurt” to Henderson however determined towards it due to how nicely he labored with their youngsters on the ice. Henderson informed the lads they solely hated him as a result of they weren’t used to seeing somebody who seemed like him, however, he informed them, “I’m used to seeing you.”

Racist incidents in skilled hockey have been well-documented through the years, however there have been a handful of incidents within the youth hockey realm as nicely. In January, a 13-year-old Maryland boy was topic to monkey sound taunts at a event. In Might 2018, a 12-year-old boy from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was referred to as the N-word by an opponent; the boy later advised his father he felt “he didn’t belong.”

Henderson, who has served on variety process forces for the NHL and USA Hockey, provides temporary historical past classes after each apply with the aim of educating his gamers that, regardless of their shade, we’re all the identical. In sports activities, he tells them, you must discover ways to stay amongst individuals who don’t appear to be you.

“I feel anytime you have got a chance for individuals from totally different backgrounds, totally different experiences to return collectively and to comprehend that they in all probability have, once they get to know one another and construct what I typically name skilled pursuits, they really have extra in widespread than not,” stated Kim Davis, the NHL’s government vice chairman of social influence, progress initiatives and legislative affairs. “Neal has been a grasp at attaining that, and what’s been distinctive about this program is that this system is concentrated on attracting youngsters of shade however this system engages all youngsters.”

The Fort Dupont Ice Area is situated within the district’s Ward 7, a group that’s 95% black and one of many poorest within the nation’s capital. The Cannons are about 70% black nowadays, principally due to the altering demographics (learn: redevelopment and gentrification) within the district over the previous few many years. (“I’ve my very own private emotions about that, and I’ll depart it that method,” Henderson stated.)

“These sorts of youngsters that you simply run in touch with, these are the youngsters that different individuals say, ‘Get away, don’t hassle me.’ These are those that I discovered helpful and I discovered a objective for them,” Henderson stated, his voice starting to interrupt and his eyes welling up with tears.

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“That’s the best factor that you could get from a man that’s rising up within the metropolis who had no one however me. You see a man that’s 40 years previous come up and hug you and cry in your shoulder and say, ‘Thanks.’ These are the issues that make it worthwhile.”

Forty-three years in the past, Henderson by no means noticed himself turning into a “particular individual in hockey” who can be inducted into the Corridor of Fame. The one factor that has stunned him through the years is how lengthy the Cannons have lasted.

However on the finish of the day, no accolade can examine to the lives Henderson has modified in his group.

Martenzie is an affiliate editor for The Undefeated. His favourite cinematic second is when Django stated “Y’all need to see somethin?”

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